Wednesday, November 26, 2003


I spent most of the weekend looking at, reading about, and writing about Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe.

This is a great painting. It was a sensation when it was first exhibited and it became famous for several reasons. It was the first grand style history painting to depict an event of recent history, and further it depicted the figures in a modern setting wearing modern clothing.

What strikes me about this painting is the similarity between it and modern history films in the way they are executed and the intent behind them.

West's went to great effort to make sure that all of the figures in the picture appeared in their proper uniforms according to position and rank. He asserted that his intent was to provide a historically accurate portrayal of Wolfe's death on the Plains of Abraham.

Of course this was only partly true. While the uniforms and trappings of all the soldiers are rendered in exquisite detail and excellent accuracy the overal narrative of the scene is a complete fabrication. Wolfe died away from the battle, behind some shrubbery with only two junior officers tending to him. It was not nearly as grand as West portrays it. The point was obviously to valorize and mythologize Wolfe as a patriotic hero. The detail of the modern dress served to legitimize such a portrayal.

The point is that directors of modern history films are doing the same thing today. They go to great efforts to insure that their film looks historically accurate, and they put out press releases telling everyone what great effort they took to achieve historical accuracy. For example, I recently read an article about the Canadian historian who was on the set of Master and Commander every day to insure that everything looked just right.

But then when it comes to actuall historical content and narrative, accuracy goes out the window. The intent becomes to portray historical figures as glorious mythologized heroes. Consider Brave Heart, The Patriot, and Gladiator as just three examples.

I find it interesting that the same intent and the same techniques that were being applied to 18th century history painting are being used in 21st century history films. I'm not condemning the modern film industry outright, certainly history is going to be interpreted by various people in various ways; although I think there are some blatant inaccuracies in the above films that should have been avoided. However, I think that it is most important that peole recognize that when they see a history film there is often an intent behind it beyond mere entertainment, and that people should question what that is.

Perhaps though, that's too much to ask for a night at the movies.

Posted by Matthew @ 2:33 p.m.